Just like several other regions in Nigeria, the South East sub-region offers a wide range of breathtaking, recreational tourist sites of attraction with such beautiful scenery, which can attract huge economic benefits if properly harnessed. TAYO ADELAJA reveals his experience during a trip organised by the South East Zone of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN).

But one could not have made it to all the locations in a short three days if not for the availability of the services of ABC Transport. As one went from city to city, state to state, one thing was clear. South East Travel and Tourism is ready to take off under the leadership of Lolo Ngozi Ngoka, Vice President, FTAN South East.

Enugu, town of the red earth

Enugu, capital of Enugu State, was the former capital of the old Eastern Region, then East-Central State, then old Anambra State. Before it became capital, it was home to Nigeria’s first coalmines, which were built in 1908, one of Nigeria’s major exports at the time. Incidentally, the building of the coalmines at Enugu coincided with the creation of Port Harcourt, which served as a terminus to the new rail lines that took the coal from Enugu to the newly created port at the Niger Delta, for onward shipment to the United Kingdom. Enugu’s and Port Harcourt’s gain was Calabar’s loss, which not only had lost its status as capital of Nigeria in 1906 but now had lost commercial relevance for the British to these new cities, its major exports being, previously human cargo, and palm produce. This was understandable. The whirr of the wheels of the Industrial Revolution in Britain were getting louder and the factories needed fuel to make things run. Enugu, being a veritable source of coal, would be a natural choice for British development. Even then, the British developed the city to their own immediate requirement.

Development of Enugu, which means ‘town on a hill’, literally started from the top of the hills where the coalmines were built. To access the colliery, from the main town, one had to go from the base, up the Milliken hill, through a windy twisting road that is celebrating its centennial this year. It has been said that many a too-fast driver had overshot the road down the steep slopes that flank one side of the road. The wonder though is that vestiges of this road built exactly 100 years ago by Engineer Milliken still remain in the main. The construction of the road is an evidence of sheer genius that was deployed at the time. At the valley below is the Iva valley camp, named after the main contractor who supplied labour for the mines.

But you can’t miss it. The predominant red earth of Enugu. It has been there for thousands of years and will be there for years to come.

The demystification of the shrines

If you are accessing the Milliken hill directly from the Akanu Ibiam International airport, you will go through Abakpa, which was the colloquial name for an Army settlement. The barracks of the 82nd Division of the Nigerian Army is, indeed, located along the route, but not before one has driven past the installations of the Nigerian Air Force. In any case, any tourist into Enugu must stop over at the Museum of National Unity, a fairly, well-kept repository of our national history.

Nature’s best kept secrets

Beyond the Milliken Hill, further into Enugu State towards Udi, is the Ogba Cave, which during wars, including the civil war, served as refuge for fleeing country dwellers. A grove of almond and melon trees houses the cave. The entrance to the cave is uneven but accessible and even motorable up to a particular point where one is forced to alight and approach by foot. The trees in the grove harbour chirping birds and lend to the supernatural ambience that surrounds the cave. To enter the cave, one must take of his shoes altogether and descend a slippery slope into the mouth of the cave. The cave is made of the silica rock and has been said to be so from the beginning of time. A stream leads from the cave and serves as a source of potable water for the community. This stream leads to the Ogbakaba waterfall, which is one of nature’s best-kept secrets.

Cascading waters pound the rocks and give up a continuous, thunderous roar. Simple walkways, though fragile, have been built to skirt the waterfalls to help interested sightseers go from one end of the waterfall to the other.

And how best to end the day, than to settle into a bowl of abacha (cassava flakes), ugba (stripped locust beans) and bushmeat or roasted chicken washed down with frothing sweet palm wine.

Owerri, the centre of ‘enjoyment’

Owerri is known as the centre of Igbo Catholicism but today, it can be called the centre of ‘enjoyment’. It is home to over 300 new 2-star, 3-star hotels, over 20,000 hotel rooms, built within a span of 10 years.

Why is there this new flourish of hospitality at Owerri? What most of the tourism operators at Owerri say is that Owerri is a major travel hub in the South-East. Most road travellers from Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and even Rivers State traverse Owerri to get to their ultimate destinations. Then, Owerri boasts of the Sam Mbakwe Airport which makes it easier to connect to Lagos and Abuja. Then, in terms of business, the South East is a major pull for business such that thousands of business transactions are enacted daily resulting in the flurry of overnight stays at the city’s hotels.

Dr. Etofolam Osuji, Chairman/CEO, Maranatha Suites, a retired public accountant, boasts his hotel records a 50+% average occupancy rate. The same can be said of Emmanuel Nwachuckwu, General Manager of Villa Garden Hotel, Owerri, who says the hotel records up to 90% occupancy at peak seasons.

Full Moon Hotel boasts 69 rooms and an average occupancy rate of 43%. Full Moon Hotel boasts a whole range of facilities and services from swimming pool to conference facilities and has regular buffet.

Albeit, the hotels all try to outdo themselves in providing leisure and hospitality services for inbound travellers.

It is whispered though that the underlying allure for most inbound travellers to Owerri are the fair ones from the five higher educational institutions domiciled in the state.

The myth of the Ogbunike

Anambra is home to great towns including Awka, Onitsha, Obosi, Ogbunike, Oko and Nkpor. Its residents all try to outdo themselves in showing hospitality to visitors. And when they do, it’s the full compliment of food, drinks and board.

The Igwe of Ogbunike, himself, Igwe Osita Umenyiora, personified this show of hospitality as he received us at his palace. Mere mortals, though we were, he welcomed us with the kolanuts, garden eggs, food and drinks, highly elaborate, especially at the short notice of our coming.

Our main interest was the Ogbunike cave and waterfall. And our main tourist guide was the Igwe himself! He took pains to tell us about the cave and the descent to it – 312 steps! No mean feat for the faint-hearted. He was spot on in this description for the going down and coming up is a real cardio-vascular workout. Drops of water trickle from the its roof. We are told that during the rainy season it stops. Obviously, this phenomenon is something for scientists to clear up. Like the Ogba cave near Enugu, the Ogbunike cave was haven for the many who fled to it in times of strife.

The entrance to the cave is a large opening. The Igwe tells that his Palace throne room was designed to simulate the cave opening. Inside the cave are many chambers and they can be located on many levels.

Even though the Igwe assures us that there no real spiritual linkages one could draw to the cave, it is reported that many religious persons including pastors and priests go into cave and take sanctuary as they fast and commune with God.

The Igwe’s throne room is worth mentioning. The stuffing of wild animals like the bear and the tiger adorn the approach to the throne. Other objects add to give the throne room a stately appearance and leave the visitor gasping in wonder.

War, never again

While the articles at the Enugu museum of National Unity fill one with a nostalgic feeling for the ancient times, the stories and relics at the National War Museum at Umuahia, fill one with abhorrence for war and its like. Objects of war like guns, aircraft, the famous Ogbunigwe (Biafran bomb), tanks, personnel carriers and watercraft are on display at the museum. Also on display are the old transmitters of the defunct Radio Biafra which operated from a bunker located below the outpost of the Biafran which is now the museum.

From the outpost, a trench was dug all the way to the last command headquarters of the then Supreme Commander of Biafra, ‘General’ Odumegwu Ojukwu, where a bunker was also built (Ojukwu bunker) and from where Biafran strategy was cultivated. The civil and structural engineering of the bunker is elaborate and is worth marvelling at.

Nevertheless, it is not the objects of war that fill one with revulsion of war; it is the sheer waste of genius and talent for a cause, which, unfortunately, has come to nothing, that fills one with such regret. That such an opportunity for such gratuitous contribution of aptitude to a national cause has now given way to a somewhat certain hopelessness, which may not be re-enacted for many years to come.

Never again, should there be such a war. War is simply not good.

Like joke, the statues make sense

Is it possible to leave the South East without paying homage to the statues? Certainly not! The Owerri statues have caused many tongues to wag especially as people wonder the function of statues in these lean times. But when you get to Owerri, you don’t want to miss them. Every tourist makes a beeline for the statues, which are mounted in the Owerri Recreational Park, which also has man-made caves and other recreational pieces. The brainchild of the Imo State Governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, the statues are those of outstanding men and women of African descent from Africa and diaspora. They include the Rt. Honourable, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owelle of Onitsha, and Martin Luther King. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Nelson Mandela also have mounts here as well Mrs. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson and Mr. Jacob Zuma. Nana Akufo Addo is also here. It is a great effort and it will pull in a lot of people to Owerri.

The normal early morning greeting is, “I boo la chi? (Have you woken up?)” But today’s Owerri greeting is, “Awoo la chi? (Have you been moulded?)” It is because there are two empty mounts. Who would occupy those mounts? Could it be you?